Village's tale of oppression strikes universal chord

Reprinted from the 15 March 1996 Seattle Post-Intellinger
By Roberta Penn

The Arab people of the Israeli village Suhmatah were driven from their homes 50 years ago because the land was needed from the jews who were stttling there. It is a tragic story, much like any other tale of indigenous people being ousted from their land in the name of greed, politics of progress.

No matter what kind of oppression might have led one group of people to invade another's land, this kind of story is difficult to tell without stirring up bitterness, without challenging people to take sides. But playwrights Hanna Eady and Edward Mast Present the tragedy of people of Suhmatah with much sensivity and little blame in "Suhmatah".

Tow characters, Habeeb (Christopher Petit) and his grandfather (Vincent Balastri), peel away the layers of Sahmatah's history by enacting personal stories of the people who lived there. These plays within the play tell of an agrarian community that traded, bartered, grew its own food and had no banks, guns or stores. The villagers wanted for nothing.

Standing on the barren ruins of Suhmatah, depicted by only two gray cubes, Grandfather captures his grandson's imagination through romantic tales of his ancestors.

Eventually Habeeb becomes so entranced by Grandfather's stories that he becomes a conduit for things that happened long before his time. It is as if the consciousness of his ancestors was speaking through him, and he turns into a young boy confronted and killed by an invading soldier during the 1948 invasion.

There are several sad stories of disenfranchisement that the boy and his grandfather portray. But the saddest is the one the grandfather can't tell: the return of the Arabs to Suhmatah. Because there is no end yet to this real life story, the theatrical tale ends with a feeling of great longing.

As Grandfather, Balastri takes his time with the role, letting the ancient land live in his dry, old bones, His voice, thought authorization, is that of a storyteller rather than a preacher, making us see the people rather than just their problems. And when he becomes these other characters, each of them is given just as much attention as his primary role.

Petit's playing of Habeeb is more difficult. He is a sort of doubting Thomas, challenging this wonderful old man. But as he becomes swept away by his ancestry, Habeeb becomes a channeler, relating pain that those are dead can't speak.

Petit and Habib peel away the layers of Sahmatah's history like an onion removing outer toughness until the filmy pain of these people brings tears. It is a universal weeping that could just as easily be for the Cherokee Nation or the people of Bosnia.

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